“The Empire” is easily Disney Plus Hotstar’s biggest budgeted Indian series to date and was also a mammoth undertaking for showrunner Nikkhil Advani.
The series is based on Alex Rutherford’s bestselling “Empire of the Moghuls” novels, a racy, fictionalized version of the history of the Moghul empire, which dominated South Asia from 1526 to 1720. Season one is based on the first novel, “Raiders from the North” and follows the young prince Babur’s journey from central Asia to India and his eventual rise to power.
The Disney Plus Hotstar top brass are all huge fans of the novels written by Diana and Michael Preston, writing together under the pen name Alex Rutherford. Advani had just wrapped “P.O.W.: Bandi Yuddh Ke,” the Indian adaptation of Gideon Raff’s Israeli drama “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) that was remade in the U.S. as “Homeland” for India’s Star TV, and discussions were on for a further collaboration. They handed Advani the “Moghuls” novels.
“It’s a fascinating read, it’s extremely visual and visceral – I found it compelling and could not put it down,” Advani told Variety. “From the description of the clothes and the jewelry and the accessories and and the swords and to even the way the whole violence is done – it’s riveting stuff.” Advani read all six novels in the anthology in two months and was ready to tackle the series.
The one issue that Advani faced was the awareness of the average Indian audience member to Moghul history, with most people knowing about the emperors’ journeys either via comic books or the school curriculum. The “Moghuls” novels cover the emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. The books themselves proved a rich vein for Advani and his team to mine.
“While I know the story of all these six emperors — the insight into the women, the backroom, the harem, the politics, the sexuality, the sacrifices and the ambitions detailed in the book are so vividly distinct — is what actually drew me to tell the story,” says Advani.
An epic subject like the Moghuls needed an epic scale and Advani says that the Hotstar management backed him to the hilt in realizing his vision. The series was shot across India and Uzbekistan, where the central Asian sequences were shot. The pandemic did not allow the crew to return to Uzbekistan and central Asia had to be recreated in Mumbai studio spaces and nearby outdoor locations. From a costume and production design point of view, Advani and his team made it a point to stay away from the garish gold excesses Bollywood normally provides to historical subjects and based it on real, organic elements. Post-shoot, VFX was done on a scale unheard of for Indian streaming projects.
Next up for Advani as director is Amazon Prime Video India series “Mumbai Diaries 26/11,” based on the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai, which streams from Sept. 9. As a producer, Advani is currently busy with “Mrs.Chatterjee v/s Norway,” directed by Ashima Chibber and starring Rani Mukherji, which is shooting in Estonia, and “Satyameva Jayate 2,” directed by Milap Zaveri, starring John Abraham that is due a theatrical release at the end of the year. Season two of “The Empire” is also being prepped.
“The Empire,” produced by Monisha Advani and Madhu Bhojwani for Emmay Entertainment, is directed by Mitakshara Kumar and the cast includes Kunal Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Drashti Dhami, Dino Morea, Aditya Seal, Sahher Bambba and Rahul Dev. It streams on Disney Plus Hotstar India from Aug. 27.